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Talking To Ourselves

For the past 100 years or so, we’ve been coming to terms with the idea that the meaning of life, the world we inhabit, and we ourselves are constructs of language. Not long ago we believed that meaning was “out there” to be discovered in external reality, like a hidden treasure buried in the nature of things, perhaps by god himself. Then, as we came to accept our mind’s role in the assignment of meaning, we began to realize that the world we live in – that peculiar arrangement of meaning which provides us with a sense of security, identity, orientation, and significance – is really a complex system of symbols and hence also a mental construct.

Most recently, although this is only true of Western culture, as India and the Orient came to the insight long ago, we are trying to adjust ourselves to the idea that even the separate center of self-conscious personal identity – dignified with the Latin name “ego” – is nothing but an aggregate, a composition in both senses of that word.

It is “made up” of analyzable elements, each of these also a construct, which are together composed into a streaming narrative that is our personal myth. In contemporary Western philosophy and psychology this general epistemology (theory of knowledge) is known as constructivism. In the East it is called Maya: the constructed illusion of meaning, world, and self.

In this post I want to make quick work of personalizing this rather abstract theory by dismantling the box that defines our sense of self. I find it helpful to think of these elements, four of them, as fused together like lines at right angles and forming a rectangle: our box. Our individual box is meant to satisfy our emotional and intellectual needs for security, identity, orientation, and significance, as already mentioned. It provides us with location and perspective, a kind of psychological shelter but also with a lookout on reality.

Let’s take those elements, or sides of our box, and examine them more closely.

Visually, and developmentally, at the base of our self construct are the anchors that secured our deepest connection to reality as infants and young children. The maternal (M) and paternal (P) archetypes manifested in degrees of clarity through the forms of our actual mother and father.

Freud built a good deal of his psychoanalytic theory around our relationships with these two principal “taller powers” of early life. But their appreciation as archetypes (literally “first forms”) goes back thousands of years into the ancient art of storytelling.

Sacred myths of every culture are rooted in the maternal and paternal archetypes, representing our most distant memories and primal experiences.

According to archetypal psychology, these two archetypes carry echoes of our first encounters with a maternal figure who enveloped us in her warm love and made us feel safe; and a paternal figure who first encountered us as “Other” and provided for us from outside the boundary of our nascent self.

Father came to us, whereas we came from Mother.

Our development would be a dramatic adventure of gradual separation from Mother and fascination with Father, as we began to take on an identity of our own. Our present capacity for intimacy as adults traces back to those early intimate bonds with Mother and Father.

This is not to say that everyone’s actual father and mother were clear epiphanies of the maternal and paternal archetypes. Some of us grew up without one or the other in our life, in which case our one active parent had to serve as our generative Ground and transcendent Other. Some of us were raised by preoccupied, distracted, neglectful, controlling or abusive parents, which made our quest for intimacy all the more complicated. Nevertheless, and whoever served as anchors in our early life – whether as biological, adoptive, or surrogate parents to us – these elementary figures negotiated the bonds of intimacy that would qualify or compromise all our relationships henceforth.

Unavoidably in contemplating the maternal and paternal archetypes, we will recognize certain stereotypes in the roles our parents might have played during those first years. We’ve already identified the maternal archetype with warmth, love, and safety; and the paternal archetype with a provident otherness that “called us out,” as it were.

The maternal and paternal archetypes are taken up by society and played out by actual mothers and fathers, in different parenting “styles.” I want to focus specifically on interactions we had with our mother or father during more stressful experiences where we were challenged beyond our ability or lost our nerve at the edge of security, and we somehow failed. How each parent acknowledged our failure, and actually talked to us about the experience and our feelings, was in the form of “resolutions” intended to help us recover and move on.

I will identify three stereotypical resolutions with each archetype.


Our mother, manifesting the maternal archetype, characteristically took us in her arms and spoke these three Resolutions of Comfort:

  1. It’s okay.
  2. Let it go.
  3. Just relax.

Essentially she was saying that our failure wasn’t such a big deal, and that our feelings mattered more. Her intention was to ease our pain, take our attention away from the negative experience, and assure us of her unconditional love.


Our father, manifesting the paternal archetype, characteristically approached and called out to us these three Resolutions of Encouragement:

  1. Brush it off.
  2. Face your fear.
  3. Try again.

In a way, he was also telling us that our failure (in effort or of nerve) was not the end of the world. His intention was to rouse our determination, turn our attention again to the challenge, and urge us back for another attempt.


Both comfort and encouragement are “strength” words. Comfort literally means “to come with strength,” as in one who joins us in our suffering and offers support. Encouragement means “to give (or put in) heart,” which is what we most need when we have lost our passion, will, hope or desire (associated in many cultures with the heart). In speaking these Resolutions of Comfort and Encouragement to us, our mother and father were, in different ways, building the foundation of our self construct.

Over time, these same resolutions were gradually internalized by us, so that, in later life experiences of failure and insecurity, we could remember them (i.e., speak them to ourselves) and move past our pain. They became habits that carried us through life, shaped our values and beliefs, and provided inspiration for our roles in relationship with others.

Our box is complete.

 

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Where Love Can Only Grow

We are presently witnessing a massive phase shift in the living system of our planet. Scientists have been noting and measuring incremental changes in climate temperatures, polar ice caps and sea levels, attributable to a thickening blanket of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which traps radiant heat of the sun near Earth’s surface. Breakdowns in ozone allow more ultraviolet light inside, altering the fertility, development, and metabolism of its native life-forms, rushing many species to extinction.

Ostrich politicians and captains of industry may deny that these catastrophic changes have anything to do with the rampant consumer activity of our own species, but the facts really do speak for themselves. The biosphere is collapsing, and for too long we have been holding onto hope that the data was overblown or that new technologies would save us from disaster if we can just be patient a little longer.

The relationship of humans with nature is a strained one, as acknowledged in the early mythology of many world cultures. It is typically some major failure in wisdom, responsibility, or conscience that resulted in our expulsion from the garden where all that we needed had been provided. Life outside the garden became one of increasing preoccupation with the structures, technologies, mechanisms, and complications of a uniquely human culture. As we got deeper into our own construction of cultural affairs, the intuitions, sympathies, and instincts of our animal nature gradually fell out of consciousness and our estrangement grew more pronounced.

This is the third of three pernicious divisions that have driven human history to the brink, where we find ourselves today. Our cultural progress over the millenniums – and it has been astonishing, has it not? – has come at the expense of the natural systems and resources we’ve needed to exploit along the way. Trees become lumber for our houses, ores are turned into metal for our cars, oil and natural gas are converted into fuel, lubricants, and plastics that make the world go round. Nature has effectively been reduced to resources for our use, real estate to be developed, and depositories for our waste.

We still sometimes talk about ‘human nature’, but what does that really mean? Not that humans belong to nature, or that our origins and evolution are dependent on nature’s provident life support. Instead, human nature has come to refer to what is unique and special to human beings – what separates us from the web of life rather than what anchors us to it.

To really understand what’s behind this pernicious division of human and nature we need to look more closely inside the social realm where so much of our attention and energy is invested. There we find a second division, between self and other – between me and the human stranger, the one whose thoughts, feelings, and motivations are invisible to me. If we were to locate our relationship to the other on a continuum ranging from communion, through cooperation, into competition, and to the opposite extreme of conflict, it seems increasingly that our engagement is a struggle with and against each other for what we want.

Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly, whereas earlier cultures seem to have valued the self-other connection as a worthy (even sacred) end in itself, we today tend to view our relationships with others as means (or barriers) to what we individually want. We are more ready to agree with Jean-Paul Sartre that “hell is other people.” The other is just so damned inscrutable, so self-involved, unpredictable, and … untrustworthy. We assume that the other person is looking out for himself, focused on her own interests and desires – just as we are.

Our starting assumption regarding the selfish intention of others is surely the primary reason why genuine community continues to elude us.

But the ecological (human-nature) and interpersonal (self-other) divisions are themselves symptoms and side-effects of still another pernicious division – third in our discussion, but first in the order of causality. There is a psychosomatic (soul-body) split within us individually that lurks behind the medical and mental pathologies crippling us today. The necessary process of ego formation effectively inserts between them a construct of identity called ego, generating the delusion of commanding a (physical) body and possessing a (metaphysical) soul.

This separate center of personal identity struggles with chronic insecurity, however, since it lacks any reality of its own but must pretend to really be somebody. The combination of our self-conscious insecurity and this conceited insistence on standing at the center of reality makes us vulnerable to stress-related diseases, as it also cuts us off from our spiritual depths.

So this is how it all spins out: A neurotic ego alienates us from our own essential nature and generates the delusion of having a separate self. Estranged from what we are, we then look out and see the other as a stranger whose opaqueness mirrors our own. The challenge of managing meaning, getting our share of happiness, and holding our place in the world has us so involved as consumers of culture, that it has taken this long to notice nature collapsing around us.

In the meantime, the ecosystem of life on our planet, the deep traditions and higher wisdom of our various cultures, along with our individual sanity and wellbeing are all unraveling at once.

Of course, we need to do what we can to arrest the degradation of our planetary home. Flying off and colonizing another planet only postpones the final catastrophe and leaves the fundamental problem unresolved. Down-sizing and getting off the carousel of mindless consumerism might give Earth a chance to recover to some extent. For such measures to have significant effect, however, nations need to be working together, parties need to get off their platforms and promote the common good. And for that to happen, each of us will have to break through the delusion of who we think we are and get over ourselves.

The earth will be renewed as we learn to love each other, and love can only grow near the spring of inner peace.

 

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Our Quest for Oneness

Despite the fact that so much of religion tends to divide and antagonize (including terrorize), I’ve been exploring its essential function as a unifying force in human culture. We take as our starting point the root meaning of the word “religion” itself, deriving from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect. Whatever distortions or corruptions it has taken on over the centuries, it seems to me that we should check these against the deeper or original intention of religion before we simply reject it out of hand as obsolete, oppressive, and dangerous.

As with everything cultural, religion emerged and evolved over time according to the developmental needs, crises, and opportunities of our species. Stone Age religion certainly looked different from anything we can observe today, though perhaps some strong family resemblance continues in present-day aboriginal societies that still live in close communion with “wild” nature. I’ve promoted a theory which interprets this development of religion as correlated with three centers of consciousness (or mental locations) that open up in sequence and steadily add to our general picture of what is real and what really matters.

Triune 1The names of these three centers of consciousness employ familiar terms (body, ego, soul), but with important adjustments from the way they are popularly understood. A primary polarity is represented in body and soul, which simply identify the two directional orientations of human awareness: outward to the sensory-physical realm (body) and inward to the intuitive-mystical realm (soul). These are not “parts of the self” but rather mental locations that open awareness to distinct dimensions of experience.

A popular confusion draws an equation between soul and ego, my third mental location. But in fact ego and soul are not two names for the same thing. Soul, once again, refers to our inward orientation and deep inner life, while ego is our socially constructed center of identity. While I admit that an established center of identity (ego = I) is what makes our primary split in orientation possible in the first place, ego actually inhabits its own realm: the socio-moral arena of life in our tribe.

In the above illustration, the primary polarity of body and soul is indicated by a green connector while ego sits on its own. This makes the point that ego is a construct of culture, both a product and symptom of society, which makes it the wild card in our evolutionary adventure. More on that below.Triune 2

Religion is thus designed to coordinate these three centers of consciousness (body, soul, ego) and their corresponding realms. Together these centers comprise the animal, spiritual, and personal aspects of a human being. Our development, as individuals and a species, advances sequentially through stages beginning in the body, moving through an ego-dominant period, and deepening all the while into a more inwardly grounded mode of being.

I have designated these general stages of religion as animistic (body-centered), theistic (ego-centered), and post-theistic (soul-centered). Just because development has advanced beyond a stage doesn’t mean that the experiences and concerns peculiar to that stage are no longer relevant. On the contrary, those experiences and concerns are taken up and incorporated into the next stage and updated according to its emergent paradigm of meaning.

As the wild card in the set, ego represents a strong element of risk against the eventual fulfillment of this project. In previous posts I have tried to describe the factors that tend to compromise what psychology rightly names “ego strength” – the well-centered self confidence that develops as our needs for safety, love, power and worth are adequately met.

In the best of all possible worlds, we grow up in a family environment where these needs are fulfilled and our personal identity (ego) is securely established. Of course, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds and our caretakers are not perfect. As a consequence, the ego adapts and compensates for the insecurity by defending itself, pretending to be what it’s not, and insisting on being the center of reality. Interestingly, but not really surprisingly, theism – as the model of religion that co-evolves with the ego – often portrays its principal deity in corresponding ways, as craving glory, jealous of rivals, and prone to violence in his campaign for supremacy.

Since in previous posts I’ve deconstructed the perverse influence of ego insecurity on the otherwise respectable and developmentally necessary stage of theism, I want to move now in a completely opposite direction with my analysis. It’s easy to commit the mistake of effectively dismissing theism as only a transitional stage (more like a phase) along our way to something better. From my comments on the ego, about the inevitable and worldwide neuroses that pull theism into various dangerous corruptions (sectarianism, exclusionary membership, extremism, and redemptive violence), you might assume I have nothing good to say about either one of them.

On the contrary.

Triune FullThe diagram above shows where theism fits into the evolutionary scheme of religion. Our animal nature of the body connects us (religare) outwardly to the sensory-physical Universe, while our spiritual nature (or what I prefer to call our higher self) links us inwardly to the intuitive-mystical Ground. Both “Universe” and “Ground” are synonyms of sort, each communicating the idea of oneness: Universe as the nuance of totality (the All), and Ground as essence. As I said earlier, this body-soul axis forms the primary polarity in which human beings live. Ego (our wild card variable) tugs development in a horizontal direction, where we find a third nuance of oneness, encountered as the Other.

This, I would say, is the real genius in theism: regarding the present mystery of reality in its specific incarnation as one who stands opposite of me, in a space of absolute difference insofar as the other is deep-down unique and truly an individual (from individuum, the indivisible). In the process of ego development, identity is shaped and challenged in relationship with others who come out to meet us from the dark recess of otherness. We’re not talking about the role-plays of social performance that govern so much of our daily interaction, but about the direct encounter between one self and another.

To conceive of God as Other in this sense, as a transcendent and absolute self who comes out to meet us or calls us out of our selves to an encounter, considers the present mystery of reality in terms of a one-to-one relationship. As the Jewish writer Martin Buber explained in his seminal book I and Thou, this faith in reality as arising out of the primal relationship of self and Other frames our whole existence in the dynamics of mutuality, dialogue, estrangement, and reconciliation.

This might encourage us to re-read our Bible as a mythological exploration (of quest, encounter, and response) into reality as the reciprocal adventure of humanity’s longing for God and God’s outreach to humanity. To simply take the Bible literally and make God into a literal being (i.e., a god) only serves to strip out its internal complexity, leaving nothing more than supposedly factual reports of supernatural events and once-upon-a-time miracles. When this happens, the Bible becomes, in the words of Francis Bacon, “an idol of the tribe.” It stops speaking and becomes only words.

What if instead we engaged the Bible as a literary portrait – really a collection of portraits – of the human being as formed in relationship with Holy Otherness, as falling out of union and trying to hide our nakedness from The Gaze, as distracting ourselves in mediocrity or striving for superiority, and at last hearing the call to an awakened life and returning to intimacy with The One who never left us? That would be a very different Bible from the one pumped from most pulpits today, would it not?

As I said at the beginning, our developmental advance from one mental location (and one stage of religion) to the next doesn’t mean that we grow up and get past those deeper needs and concerns. Just as theism doesn’t (or shouldn’t) seek to discredit the animist vision of reality as it sets out to expand on the dynamics of relationship, neither does (or should) post-theism dismiss the genuine insight of I and Thou at the heart of theism as it cultivates a more contemplative engagement with the grounding mystery of Being itself.

Our quest for oneness at each stage turns out to be a chapter (and ongoing theme) in the longer human journey to communion. Whether we celebrate our place in the living Universe, reach out with care to the holy Other, or sink inward to the nameless Ground of our being, we are fulfilling a most enduring and sacred of human quests.

 

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